The 900 year journey to press freedom and the right to vote.

Let’s face it: the natural state of government is secrecy. It is also the most cost effective, lacks red tape and is capable of immediate results.  What’s not to love about secrecy?

Indeed, even the great society, founded to have a government ‘Of the People, By the People, For the People’, and despite the First Amendment of its constitution, is now obsessed with secrecy.  Ask Julian Assange. 

But societies like ours, those that take their model of governance from the Westminster tradition, have spent at least the past 900 years demolishing governmental secrecy.  It has been a 900 year journey to the right to vote and press freedom, the right to know.

However, the legal tide has turned in the past few decades, government secrecy is fighting back.  More and more legislation with secrecy provisions is hitting the books. Alarmingly, we are told, this secrecy is necessary and for our own good.  It seems we are no longer capable of discretion and worthy of trust.   This government fight-back has led to the current ‘Your Right to Know” campaign under the auspice of the major legacy media.  

The right to vote, to be informed about and influence government decisions, and the mechanisms to allow that flow of information, a free press, has been hard won.  Here are, for me, some key turning points.

Magna carta

Once upon a time government was simple and secret. Kings and, occasionally, queens ruled by Divine Right.  It didn’t matter whether you were the pharaoh of Egypt or the lord of the isles, a superior authority had gifted you with the right to rule, though that right was frequently guaranteed by force of arms, divinely sanctioned, of course.  Any challenge to power was both treason and a mortal sin, risking temporal, spiritual and eternal life. 

That monachal grip on power slipped a little in 1215, on an insignificant island in the River Thames called Runnymede. It wasn’t power to the people, but the great and good of the Catholic Church and the English barons laid claim to a bit of governmental action.  

In 1066, after the Norman Conquest, William of Normandy established a ‘council of tenants-in-chief’. They were, of course, the aristocracy who, with the Catholic Church, were the only ones rich enough to be landholders. 

A century and a half later, a major dispute erupted between the unpopular King John and his council of tenants-in-chief.

In an attempt to resolve it, the Archbishop of Canterbury drafted the grandly titled Great Charter of the Liberties, the Magna Carta Libertatum.  It promised to establish a consultative council of 25 barons, protect church rights, outlaw illegal imprisonment and promised swift justice, and subjected feudal and other taxes to the approval of the council.

Unfortunately, neither side acted in good faith and, in any case, the pope annulled it.  The document we now know as Magna Carta was redrafted in 1217, again in 1225 but it was Edward I, in 1297, who put it on the statute book.  Though the Magna Carta had little to do with the rights of common folk, it continues to have great symbolic value, the UK’s Lord Denning calling it ‘the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot’.

Charles I and his unfortunate fate

Another turning point was a little stoush between Charles I of England and his parliament.  The parliament had grown out of the council of tenants-in-chief and by the early 17th century had assumed many powers, once the prerogative of the king.  Charles was a Catholic traditionalist from the House of Stewart. From his ascension in 1625, he and parliament disagreed over many things including his contentious belief in the divine right of the king.

This fissure led to two periods of civil war, the Parliamentarians (or Roundheads) verses the Royalists (or Cavaliers).  The Parliamentarians won and Charles was convicted of high treason.  He was beheaded, in public, on the penultimate day of January 1649.

The monarchy was abolished and England briefly declared a commonwealth, then a Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell. The monarchy was restored to Charles’s son, as Charles II, in 1660, but it was a very different monarchy.  The present day constitutional monarchy of Great Britain owes its essential features to that created for the restoration of 1660.

Any prospect of a return to the throne of a king, governing by divine right, died on Culloden Moor in Scotland in 1746.  In this, the last pitched battle fought on British soil, the British forces, commanded by the Duke of Cumberland, crushed the resurgent Stewart-led Jacobites.  In effect, it was the final victory of parliament, over the divine right of kings.

Within four decades, another series of events shaped the right to know.

Parliament and the newspapers

While moveable type had revolutionised printing in the late 15th century, newspapers and magazines were much slower to emerge, held back by the slow growth of literacy.  But by the mid 18th century, male literacy in England was approaching sixty percent, and newspapers, pamphlets, magazines were in common circulation. 

However since 1738 the reporting of what was said in parliament was illegal.  The ban was successfully challenged in 1771 by radical MP and journalist John Wilkes, so by the late 18th century parliamentary reporting flourished. Unfortunately, reporters had to work from memory as taking notes was banned. The ban was lifted in the Commons in 1783 and, later, in the House of Lords. Thus, the workings of parliament were there for all to see.

Edmund Burke, the pin-up boy of modern conservatives, recognised the shift in power that press scrutiny brought to government. He is reported to have pointed across the chamber and said:  ‘there were Three Estates in Parliament’ [the Lords Temporal, the Lords Spiritual and the Commons]; ‘but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.’

Fourth Estate or Fifth Column.

Thus, the modern role of the press, the media, as watchdogs of democracy, was established.  It is this role that is being undermined by secrecy provisions in much new legislation, a muzzling of the dogs. 

Until recently it has remained unchallenged in public and before the citizens. 

It is not a matter of journalism being above the law, it is a matter that laws are creating classes of activity outside lawful scrutiny, categories of knowledge that it is illegal to know.  We, the governed, are losing the right to know what is done in our name and why.

The press, the media, are imperfect, as is the parliament and the bureaucracy that serve us both. It is the role of all four estates of government to work on the imperfections but, without exposing the imperfections, the role of the media, the failures and imperfections will grow.

It is deeply disturbing that many of those we trust in government – our parliamentarians – have mistaken the fourth estate for a fifth column rather than an essential part of our democracy.

© Vincent O’Donnell, 2019.

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